Senior Editor
orcas sinking ships

Orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar have developed a serious case of localism. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

Remember that time when it seemed as though orcas were becoming the most dangerous thing seafarers had to be wary of? For a few short months, reports of ships being attacked by killer whales felt like a daily occurrence. Then, they slowed way down. But the boat-hating whales are back. This weekend, a boat sank in the Strait of Gibraltar after a pod of orcas decided to teach it a lesson.

According to reports, on Sunday, May 12, a sailboat named Alborán Cognac ran into a feisty group of whales about 14 nautical miles from Cape Spartel in Morrocan waters. The Alborán Cognac, a 50-foot sailboat was hammered first to the hull, then repeatedly hit on the rudder. Strangely, the rudders and hulls appear to be the parts of a ship that the orcas target most frequently, giving some credence to the theory that the boat attacks are a learned practice.

“My personal opinion is people do revenge, animals don’t do revenge,” said Robert Pittman, a marine mammal researcher at Oregon State University who used to study orcas in San Diego. “I think they’re just playing around. They tried it once and turned it into a game. As it is with killer whales, things tend to spread among the group. The matriarch is definitely in charge of the group and if she’s in favor of it or will let it happen then it will, but if she says ‘no,’ then it’ll stop.”

Once the crew aboard the Alborán Cognac realized they were in serious trouble, they called the Spanish maritime rescue service for help. A helicopter was mobilized and a passing oil tanker was called in for assistance.

“Since May 2020, hundreds of similar orca attacks have been seen in the Mediterranean around the Iberian Peninsula,” IFLScience reported. “According to the Atlantic Orca Working Group, at least 52 disruptive interactions were reported between July and November 2020. In 2021, a total of 197 interactions were clocked, while 207 interactions were recorded in 2022.”

Although orcas are sometimes called killer whales, there has never been a reported human fatality caused by one in the wild. They are indeed apex predators — sometimes even hunting great whites — but the only fatal attacks on humans have been caused by orcas in captivity.


Only the best. We promise.


Join our community of contributors.